OTTUMWA — Students in Wapello County won’t be making up school days due to the extended closure of schools through the end of the month.

Ottumwa, Cardinal and Eddyville-Blakesburg-Fremont have all said that they are following the voluntary option of the three the Iowa Department of Education offered Thursday.

“We actually last week decided to start the voluntary educational enrichment activities,” said Cardinal Superintendent Joel Pedersen. “Once the decision was made [Thursday], we felt really good about our decision.

“We are not going to have to make up any hours or days. This was one of two options. We don’t have equitable resources across the district for required.”

Equity was one of the factors that led to Ottumwa’s decision to follow the voluntary path as well, said Kim Hellige, director of community programs for the district. Providing lessons was another consideration. “Our professional development is really focused one face-to-face instruction,” she said. “To make the jump to online instruction in a week is a lot to ask.”

Pedersen said that in addition to providing educational activity suggestions and learning apps, Cardinal teachers are reaching out to students online. Elementary teachers are interacting via Facebook Live and Zoom, while at the secondary level they’re using Google Classroom in addition to Zoom.

“There is engagement with teachers and not just resources,” Pedersen said. “It’s not perfect. It’s not hitting everybody because of schedules. We record everything so they can get it at any time.”

“At Ottumwa, we are planning to continue to use the model of optional instruction, requesting that families engage their students in the learning process,” said Superintendent Nicole Kooiker in a written statement. “We encourage our parents to utilize Clever and the activities provided by our teachers and to keep students engaged. We will continue to expand our optional learning resources and share those on our website. Teachers are collaborating to reach out to students on a weekly basis as well. This allows our district to best address equity issues for our students while giving our staff/students time to become familiar with the challenges of online learning.”

Hellige said that starting next week, Ottumwa’s teachers will have put together grade-specific activities for students to access on the district’s website.

“When you start this, you just don’t know,” said Pedersen. “I’ve been so impressed with the creativity and ingenuity of my staff and what they’re doing. All these people at different comfort level [with technology] are jumping in and trying to make this happen.”

To help with that, his district is looking at ways to provide internet access for its students. “We’re still trying to look at options for Wi-Fi, possibly putting routers out around the district where people can come out and connect.”

They are also working on a plan to provide devices for students that need them.

But for the Cardinal superintendent, it’s not just about making sure students are keeping up with their education. He’s most concerned for their overall well-being.

He said over the next few days, the district will be making phone calls to its students and families to check in with them and see how they’re doing.

“When we call, the first part is, ‘How are you doing? Is there anything you need?’” Pedersen said. They will ask what they can do to help them address food insecurity, learning and even cleaning and essential supplies. He said the district has ordered supplies such as toilet paper and toothbrushes that they can hand out to students in need.

“Our social workers are also still doing Telehealth sessions to keep mental health in check,” Pedersen said.

He said he also knows there’s concern for bigger events on the horizon: prom and graduation.

“We will do whatever we can to provide prom for our students, even if we push it into the summer. It may look different, but right now we’re going to do everything we can to provide a prom for them,” he said.

The EBF district said its prom had already been postponed and remains that way.

“The closure continues to affect all school programming, including before and after-school activities, all athletic and extracurricular practices and competitions, and all weekend events through April 30, 2020. We are working to determine if we will need to reschedule activities and events such as prom and graduation,” Kooiker wrote on the Ottumwa district’s website mid-day Friday.

Hellige said the decision on holding Ottumwa’s graduation as scheduled will be based on the governor’s recommendation. “Our plan is to hold graduation at some point, absolutely,” she said.

As of right now, Cardinal’s graduation is still scheduled for May 17, “but we’re preparing to have to push that back to summer,” Pedersen said.

EBF’s graduation is also still set for May 17 but could be changing, the district said.

“We’re prepared to do these activities when it’s safe to do so. It’s too important to our families and kids,” Pedersen said.

He had an additional message for seniors: “A lot of seniors and parents really concerned. Locally, we have all the discretion to take care of our seniors to get them to the next step of what they’re going to be doing in the fall. We are 100 percent going to take care of our seniors. We’re going to do what’s right by them. They don’t need worry about anything.”

Pedersen also addressed parents, many of whom are under additional stress. “We are asking them to do the best they can and not to stress. If you don’t get it done or can’t that day, don’t beat yourself up over it,” he said of participating in the learning opportunities.

The district, he said, will be evaluating and doing outreach as the new school year approaches in the fall to determine what the gaps are and what needs to be retaught.

“This is going to be a start to school we’ve never had,” he said. “There’s a summer slide with a regular summer vacations. This could be almost five months of a break, and you have to look at things differently. We’ll be working all summer to do that.”

“We understand that these are very stressful times,” said Kooiker Thursday evening in a video message to the community. “All of our lives have been disrupted in a variety of ways. As we learn more about recent decisions made, we will continue to share updates with staff, students, parents and community members.”

Stress, in fact, was the third big factor Ottumwa looked at in choosing its path, said Hellige. “We’re all going through [stress] in these times living through a global pandemic.”

“This is just changing so rapidly every day,” said Pedersen. “We want to focus on making sure kids are safe and fed. If they’re learning, that’s great, too. But we want to focus on more than education. It’s bigger than that.”

Features Editor Tracy Goldizen can be reached via email at tgoldizen@ottumwacourier.com or followed on Twitter @CourierTracy.

Features Editor Tracy Goldizen can be reached via email at tgoldizen@ottumwacourier.com or followed on Twitter @CourierTracy.

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Tracy Goldizen is the Courier's features and magazine editor, leading production of the award-winning "Ottumwa Life" and the Courier's other magazine offerings. She began work with the Courier on the copy desk.

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